I spent this past weekend remembering with affection and a sense of loss the contribution of two historians, Lucie Halberstam and David Colquhoun. They both died recently. On Saturday there was a requiem mass in St Mary of the Angels in Wellington to celebrate the life of Lucie, and on Sunday there was a celebratory afternoon tea at David’s house in Carterton. The contrasts in the occasions pointed to two very different lives and attitudes. Lucie’s friends were offered the full Catholic ritual, a fine eulogy from Greg Coyle and the consolation of receiving the blood and body of Jesus Christ in mass and the assurance that Lucie was on her journey to meet her maker. David’s friends were offered a welcoming cup of tea or glass of wine, informal conversation about David in front of a stunning slide show of images from his life. Guests were invited to choose a book from his library to take home. Each was in mint condition and included on the inside cover David’s distinctive book mark.
They were indeed very different types of historian from very different backgrounds. Lucie was 87. According to Greg Coyle, she was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931 to German-speaking parents, her father a Jew and her mother a Catholic. In 1941 as the holocaust intensified in Czechoslovakia, the family decided that suicide was the only solution. Lucie’s mother went to the Catholic priest to receive forgiveness for their intended action. He told her to wait and that he would contact the Cardinal. Soon after they received permission to leave, and eventually made their way to Wellington. Arriving here the Halberstams built a house in Karori. Lucie had a small divan bed in her own room. She would sleep in that same bed, in the same house for some 78 years!
According to David Grant who has written an excellent obituary of David Colquhoun, David was born in Wellington to a dentist father who was an anti-fluoridation campaigner and once member of the Communist Party who became an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. David grew up in Auckland and went to Lynfield College where he started a blues magazine. David moved house, and beds many times! David was only 66 when he died.
Their very different backgrounds produced quite different historical interests. Lucie remained a Catholic all her life, an enthusiast for classical music and at university under the influence of Peter Munz she became interested in medieval Europe. When I was a first year student at Victoria University Lucie was our major lecturer on medieval Europe. I will never forget her explanation of the feudal system when she stated that a vassal would go to a lord and say, ‘I want to be your man’. She looked mystified when her student audience, all well schooled in the lyrics or the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, burst into laughter. But don’t get me wrong – her lectures were models of clarity and based on exhaustive reading. She had a huge knowledge of medieval Europe and her judgements were always deeply considered – she would often answer a query with ‘yes… and no’. I think it was probably insecurity, certainly not her intellectual acuity, which meant that to my knowledge she never published. Later when I joined the History Department at Victoria I came to appreciate her very great kindness and her devilish sense of humour which was always delivered with a twinkle in the eye. She had a passion for gardening which I always enjoyed.
David by contrast retained the left-wing sympathies of his origins, and his passion was not medieval Europe but the history of New Zealand. He became an archivist and eventually became the Curator of Manuscripts and Archives at the Alexander Turnbull Library. His energy and broad sympathy for all types of history meant that he did that job superbly. He also researched and published New Zealand history where I constantly found that his interests and my own often came together. With a thesis on the writer and judge, Frederick Maning, he was always interested in Pākeha views of Māori, and I discovered that he shared my interest in James Cowan. Through obtaining the letters of the Prince of Wales to his lover for the Turnbull he became fascinated by the Prince’s 1920 Royal Tour, another interest which I shared. He was always an enthusiast sports fan, an acute observer of test cricket from the bank at the Basin Reserve or of the deficiencies of the Phoenix at the cake tin. So he edited Jack Lovelock’s journals and was in the process of writing a biography of the multi-talented George Smith, champion jockey, athlete, All Black and Rugby league professional.
So how different could these two people, both sorely missed, have been? Yet they shared two characteristics. Both had an unbridled passion for the past – the histories they treasured were very different – Charlemagne’s Europe and George Smith’s New Zealand had little in common. Yet both people were committed to evoking those times and places. Second both believed in the importance of getting things right. Lucie was scrupulous in her tiny, almost illegible writing, in correcting every error in your student essays. She would never rush to bold but unsubstantiated conclusions. David too was an impeccable respecter of the evidence. He contributed to Te Ara a wonderfully-written and comprehensive history of Athletics. When we checked it, we discovered couple of very minor errors – a date was slightly wrong, a time one second out. When I sent the corrections to David, there was no making of excuses or wounded pride as with so many authors. Instead he congratulated the checker and was delighted that we had made the entry even more accurate and reliable than before. Like Lucie, David had a huge respect for the truth.
Lucie and David, different as you were, thank you for enriching the world of history in this part of the globe.